Telling Lies in America (review)

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Call Me Karchy

For a movie written by Joe Eszterhas (who also wrote Showgirls, among other travesties), Telling Lies in America is a surprisingly heartfelt coming-of-age story. It’s actually Eszterhas’s own coming-of-age story (it’s semiautobiographical, anyway), and it makes a start on explaining this maddening Hollywood personality.

In Cleveland in the early 60s, Hungarian immigrant and high-school senior Karchy Jonas (Brad Renfro in a nice performance) spends most of his time in the kinds of fantasies that make adolescence bearable. He practices refining his American accent in the mirror, believing that sounding like a native will take him places. He drools over the girl of his dreams, Diney (Calista Flockhart, back when she was still eating), with whom he works in a small supermarket. And in his new rock ‘n’ roll country, in its rock ‘n’ roll capital, Karchy idolizes DJ Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon, in his best performance yet). Karchy, ostracized at school, wants to be just like the swaggering Magic, whom he’s sure doesn’t take nothing from nobody.
The “telling lies” bit comes from all directions. Karchy lies to win a radio contest that gets him a meeting with Magic — Magic is impressed by Karchy’s gall and hires him to be the DJ’s flunky. Magic — who’s prone to saying things like, “You’re looking slick, Slick” — gives Karchy enough lessons in being oily that Karchy is able to transform himself, awkwardly and uncomfortably, from a sweet kid to a sleazeball for his first date with Diney. Karchy’s “lie” about the kind of guy he is doesn’t sit well with either of them — she, natch, prefers the sweet kid he was, and he just can’t sustain Magic-brand scumminess. Still, desperate to impress Magic, Karchy lies about all the things he’s done — when Magic asks if he’s ever done anything from eat filet mignon to have sex, Karchy answer invariably is “Sure, lotsa times.”

Magic has lied to Karchy, too — he needs an underage assistant only as a carrying boy for wads of payola cash, so that record producers can truthfully say they never gave Magic any money in exchange for playing a record, and Magic can say he never took any. By the time unwitting, naïve Karchy catches on, however, it’s too late — he’s already in trouble. The police may not be able to press charges against Karchy, a minor, but they can threaten the citizenship hearing he and his father are soon to face.

What’s interesting at this point is that Karchy starts to see some benefit in lying. Billy Magic may be a near-total screw-up, but he tells Karchy he’ll just move on to a new city, start over at another radio station, and rake in more wads of dough. And at his citizenship hearing, Karchy has a private exchange with the judge regarding George Washington and the cherry tree that seems to end with the two of them acknowledging that lying and moral ambiguity are part and parcel of the American way of life.

Whether you believe that or not, Karchy seems to buy it. And Karchy is basically Joe Eszterhas, who’s responsible for such messes as Sliver and Basic Instinct as well as the aforementioned Showgirls. Okay, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but could this formative experience have left this man with such a muddled view of right and wrong, of what it means to be an American, that he might have thought that a coming-of-age tale about a lap dancer was a good idea? That he can see murder as sexy?

At any rate, Telling Lies in America is the best thing Eszterhas has been involved with. Maybe he should stick more to his childhood and abandon any scripts that might potentially involve Sharon Stone.

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